The Psalmist writes, “Be still and know that I am God.” Yes, life indeed is full of surprises. Esperanza has found a place in my heart that I never imagined. I know that it will continue to be a beacon on the corner of Ray and Thunderhill; a place for rest and recovery, celebration and purpose, ministry and worship; a place where all are welcome at the table of hope. Vaya con Dios.
I was in a conversation last week and the topic shifted to “what was the first concert you ever went to?” I assumed that the question related to popular music – I had been to a couple of symphonic performances – so my answer was Peter Paul and Mary. What I did not realize at the time of the concert, which was probably in 1965 or 66, was that PP&M were introducing me to the work of Bob Dylan. They had two big hits back then that were both Dylan tunes: “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times, They Are a Changin’.”
The first hit had a gentle, mournful tone, the second one more of an edge. They both fit into their time and I think have transcended the boundary of time. When I first heard “The Times, They Are a Changin'” I thought began to think of myself and the coming change and others as the ones standing in the doorways and blocking up the halls. Today I hear, “don’t criticize what you can’t understand, your sons and your daughters are beyond your command” in a very different way.
What I would like to think about myself is that I will get out of the old road and maybe even lend a hand, but sometimes it is a struggle. Doing justice always has been. The parable in Luke’s gospel this week has more than one title. Some call it the parable of the unjust judge and some call it the parable of the persistent woman. Depending on your focus, either one works. The characters need each other for the story to happen.
On the one hand, the judge is described as a man that “neither feared God not respected people.” That isn’t exactly a great endorsement. The woman on the other hand is a widow which might have meant that unless she had family to take her in, she had nothing and no standing of any kind.
When I read this parable, I think about Rosa Parks and my Uncle Carl. Parks of course was a Civil Rights activist who was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat in the whites only section of a public bus in Montgomery Alabama. My Uncle Carl was a telephone lineman in Philadelphia riding the bus home from work. He was tired and the only seat available was in the blacks only section at the back of the bus and he sat there. He was not an activist, just a tired man on a hot day. The driver stopped the bus and demanded that Carl come to the front of the bus. Carl explained that he didn’t care about what part of the bus he was in, he just wanted to sit. He didn’t get arrested, but he refused to give up his seat and eventually the angry driver continued the route.
Unless ordinary people without power or position persistently demand justice, even when there is a cost for doing so, then justice will remain a dream. The woman kept demanding that the judge do justice even though he neither feared God or respected people. He was a man who knew no race, and yet, if only to get rid of her, the judges ruled in her favor.
The prophet Habakkuk proclaimed, “The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment and it will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it.”
Here is the last verse of Bob Dylan’s still-relevant song:
The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last.
The events of the past few weeks have taken me back to the early 70’s when the suffix “gate” started to be added to every kind of scandal imaginable. I was in college when Watergate became a household word and the student body reflected the nation in its division regarding the President’s role.
I was in a class on English Augustan Poetry and before the professor arrived a conversation/argument began on current events. When my professor arrived, instead of beginning his lecture, he began to tell a shocking story. He spoke of growing up in Germany. That alone was a surprise to us, he spoke without a trace of an accent. He cautioned about the dangers of hero worship. He was a boy in the 1930’s and recalled how the new chancellor was restoring a sense of German pride to a people struggling for a sense of identity after World War I. He talked about finding a sense of belonging in the Hitler youth with smart uniforms, patriotic songs and complete belief in “the leader” and the notion that the German people were superior.
Of course, it all came crashing down. The war was lost, survival became challenging and then the truth of genocide and crimes against humanity, especially those already on the margins and deemed expendable, was revealed. The uniform in which he once took pride was now a symbol of shame.
The room that had been loud with voices fell silent as he spoke in confessional tones, still filled with the horror from thirty years ago. He then spoke of his time as a refugee and the welcome he was given, first in England and then in the United States. He spoke of what the experience taught him about caring for those who had no one to care for them and then quoted Psalm 146: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal man who cannot save.”
Immediately after the apostles asked Jesus to “Increase our faith!” they enter a village where there are 10 lepers who cry, “Have mercy on us!” Luke shifts the subject of the story from the 12 who formed his inner circle to 10 who were not just on the margins, but completely cast out. The conventional wisdom of the time was that diseases of the body were a manifestation of a disease of the spirit. Those with leprosy not only had to endure being ostracized from society but were also required to shout, “unclean, unclean” when others approached.
This is often interpreted to be a story about gratitude – the only leper who returns to offer thanks is the Samaritan – and it is that. But it is also a story about inclusion. Not only did Jesus restore all ten of the lepers, he also did so without asking them for anything. They did not have to repent of their sins, they did not have to profess their faith, they did not even have to accept Jesus. He simply told them to go show themselves to the priest and as they went, they were made clean. Jesus did not expect any reciprocity.
What about the Samaritan? He had two strikes against him: he was a leper and a Samaritan; someone who was by definition inferior. When you think about it, why would he go to the priest, why would he show himself to a leader of those who excluded him? It was probably because he was an outsider that he understood who Jesus was more than the other nine. Because of that, he was not just made clean, he was made well.
Here is verse three of Scotsman John Bell’s hymn, “The Summons.”
Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen,
And admit to what I mean in you and you in me?
I have been a serious Anglophile since holding a season tickets to a small theater’s Shakespeare series when I was in high school. Pretty much anything on television with a British accent gets my attention. Naturally, when “Downton Abbey” premiered on PBS a few years ago, I was in. Just in case you somehow missed it, “Downton Abbey” was a series about an aristocratic English family in the early 20th century. After turning their estate house into a hospital during the first world war, the family must navigate changes in the social and economic fabric that threaten the long-standing estate system.
The series was wildly successful, and a feature film opened last month. I had mixed feelings. The production was lavish and well done, but I frankly I had a hard time feeling any sympathy for the characters – that is, the characters who weren’t servants. I guess I have a hard time feeling too sorry for someone who has inherited multiple generations of wealth who is just exhausted because they have had to change clothes four times in a day.
This week’s gospel was a little hard to swallow. There is something about Jesus’ comments about slaves and masters that really rubs me the wrong way. Particularly irritating is his suggestion that you do not thank a slave for following orders and that they should reply, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.” Am I supposed to declare myself worthless? I am reminded that Martin Luther referred to himself as a “poor stinking bag of maggots.”
Wrestling with the slave and master metaphor, I return to the demand of the disciples that touched off the whole thing: “Increase our faith!” At first it seems like a reasonable request, but the more I think about it, the more I understand why Jesus seemed so irritated. First, what makes them think faith is quantifiable? Come to think of it, an awful lot of us seem to think the same thing. Second, if faith is quantifiable, does that mean there is a faith economy in which a few have more, and many have less?
Maybe Jesus is irritated because the disciples want a faith economy and they want to be the faith aristocrats. It is easy to imagine that they would, the faith they have known was structured in just such a way with religious elites ruling over the religious serfs. For some, Jesus represented an inversion of the order; they could become the ones in charge; the ones living lavishly. No, it is not hard to imagine, in fact it is still happening among today’s preachers of what has been called the “prosperity gospel.”
This is the Jesus who said, “I come not to be served but to serve.” Worthless slaves? By the world’s reckoning, yes. But then, this is also the Jesus who said that it is by holding on to life that we lose it, and by giving it away that we gain life eternal.
October 4th is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi who died in October of 1226. Here is a quote:
“God could not have chosen anyone less qualified, or more of a sinner, than myself. And so, for this wonderful work He intends to perform through us, He selected me-for God always chooses the weak and the absurd, and those who count for nothing.”
This week’s lessons:
Amos 6: 1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 2:1-7
I have been enjoying Ken Burns’ newest docuseries on country music. One of the many wonderful stories was about Charley Pride. Pride was not the first African American in country music; the genre owes much to many nameless musicians of color, but he remains one of only three African American members of the Grand Ole Opry. When he came to Nashville to record, his first record was released without a publicity photo. He was told that eventually he was going to encounter one singer who would be a major racial impediment.
Pride concluded that if he was going to run into him eventually, he might as well get it over with. He sought the man out and said that the two started to play songs together, taking turns. The music transcended the barrier, and the two became life-long friends.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was born into a Polish family of Hasidic Jews in 1907. He studied for his doctorate at Berlin University. While living in Frankfurt in 1938, Heschel was arrested by the Gestapo and deported back to Warsaw. Weeks before the German invasion of Poland, Heschel obtained a scholar’s visa to London. His family did not fare as well: his mother was murdered by the Nazis, one sister died in a German bombing and two others died in concentration camps. In 1940, he arrived in New York where he taught at Hebrew Union College.
In 1962, Heschel’s German doctoral dissertation was expanded and translated into a two-volume English set called The Prophets. Heschel described the difference between the Jewish prophets and the soothsayers and diviners of other traditions. He argued that the role of the prophet was not to predict the future but to reveal the grief of God at a people who had turned their collective backs. The prophets reminded the people of God’s eternal concern for the poor and dispossessed, the weak and the voiceless.
In 1963 Abraham Joshua Heschel met Martin Luther King at a summit on religion and race in Chicago. An aging polish Jew from New York and a young black Baptist from Atlanta were an unlikely pair, but they shared a mutual understanding that the kingdom of God was not something that comes after you die, rather something to strive for here and now. “The exodus began,” he told those attending, “but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.” Two prophets with very different histories but a common understanding of what King would call the “Beloved Community.”
Two years later, Abraham Heschel was the only white man on the front row of the march from Selma to Montgomery. Heschel linked the struggle for civil rights in the United States to the struggle of the Jews seeking liberation from Pharaoh and empire. He was critical of religious traditions that hid behind stained glass windows and failed to confront the evil of racism. He remained an activist until his death in 1972.
Here is a critique from Rabbi Heschel on the failure of religious communities:
“We worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love. …What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality. [Racism is] the test of our integrity, a magnificent spiritual opportunity [for radical change]. Reverence for God is shown in reverence for man. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.”
1 Timothy 2:1-8
My brother lives in Florida and has exchanged blizzard readiness for hurricane readiness. He lives in the central part of the state so all he has really seen is a lot of wind and occasionally enough rain to close the golf course. Nonetheless, when the hurricane warnings start to go up there is a corresponding increase in things like flashlights and batteries, bottled water and even gasoline.
You might have noticed a little change at the gas pump here in Arizona too. After Labor Day, gas prices usually drop because the summer vacation season ends, but not this year. Since the attack affecting oil production in Saudi Arabia, gas prices have gone up about 9 cents here in Arizona even though the supply has not yet been affected. It is projected that prices might rise by as much as 25 cents per gallon.
When I lived in Evansville Indiana, there was a prediction of 4-6 inches of snow. That doesn’t sound like much to most of you, but it rarely snowed at all in Evansville and the city had very little snow removal equipment. We walked to the grocery store only to find that there was not a single loaf of bread on the shelf which was okay because the price was about 4 times the usual.
That’s three examples of what some would call the law of supply and demand, but others would call price gouging.
Amos lived in the eighth century before the birth of Jesus when what we now know as Israel was divided into two kingdoms: Judah in the south and Israel in the north. Amos was from Judah but took his prophetic message to Israel. It was a time of relative peace and prosperity, and instead of responding to some sort of shortage, merchants seemed to be grabbing for all the profit they could get. There wasn’t a middle class as we know it today, so the wealth was continuing to rise to the small number at the top while the working poor didn’t experience the prosperity.
The role of the prophet was not predicting the future but instead was speaking truth to power and cautioning about the consequences, which often were not very welcome. This would be a good time to point out that an ephah was a unit of dry measure a little larger than a bushel. Amos decries the practice of shorting the ephah while increasing the price to “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land.”
In addition to preaching about social and economic justice, Amos was concerned that in their prosperity, some of the people had become so convinced of their own power and superiority that they no longer saw a need for religious practice. He cautioned that abandoning their spiritual roots would lead to rot and ruin. A generation after Amos, Israel fell to the Assyrians.
Here is a quote on economic justice from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Ben Weaver owned the only department store in Mayberry. He also owned a lot of property. He was probably the wealthiest man in town due in no small measure to his miserly nature and grumpy demeanor. When Sam Muggins was caught making moonshine, Weaver insisted that Sheriff Andy Taylor keep him in jail even though it was Christmas Eve. When Lester Scobey fell behind in his rent, Weaver insisted that Andy execute an eviction order even though Lester’s wife was about to give birth.
Reflecting on these and other encounters with Mayberry’s grumpy old man, Andy commented, “When his time comes, he ain’t gonna go like the rest of us; he’s just going to nasty away.”
It is not clear which Psalms were actually composed by David, but Psalm 51 would be an appropriate candidate. Remembered as Israel’s great king, David was anything but flawless. The most obvious stain on his record was his liaison with Bathsheba, and then the misuse of his power to get her husband home from the war and then sent to the front where he was killed. David effectively murdered Uriah to cover-up his affair.
I’m not sure why our lectionary cuts the Psalm off at verse ten, but chances are pretty good you know the rest: “Create in me a clean heart, O God and put a new and right heart within me, cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with your free Spirit.”
If anyone ever needed a do-over it was David. In that sense, Psalm 51 is more of a prayer than a song-a plea for something new to replace the fractured old.
Our theme for the next few weeks comes from Psalm 96: “Sing a new song unto the Lord.” As I prepare to compose new verse in my song, I hope you will embrace the opportunity of this time to add some verses to Esperanza’s song. It has been a good one, and the next verses are rich with possibility and promise.
It was a song that helped to clean Ben Weaver’s heart. Andy brought his family down to the jail to share Christmas with Sam Muggins and his family. Walking down the street by himself, Ben heard music coming from the courthouse that reminded him of the lonely price he had paid for being the person he had been. He was invited in, given some eggnog and invited to join in the singing.
Andy Griffith is best remembered for his role as Andy Taylor and commented that the sheriff was the best part of him, but not the only part. His portrayal of the very dark Lonesome Rhodes in “A Face in the Crowd” is a study of an unclean heart. Here is a quote from the man who brought those very contrasting characters to life:
“I firmly believe that in every situation, no matter how difficult, God extends grace greater than the hardship, and strength and peace of mind that can lead us to a place higher than where we were before.”
Luke 14: 25-33
Last month, there was an observance of a most dubious event: the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship to the colony of Virginia. To be perfectly accurate, 1619 was not the first appearance of African slaves in the colonies that became the United States and it might be missing the point to make too much of a specific date. What we do know is that the country became deeply divided about slavery leading to a war of unmatched cost and carnage. The issue of slavery was particularly challenging to people of faith.
The constitution of the Confederate States invoked “the favor and guidance of Almighty God,” and Confederate President Jefferson Davis proclaimed that slavery was “established by decree of almighty God” and sanctioned by the bible. Some cited keeping families together and changing laws that forbade slaves from learning to read so that they could read the bible as a way of establishing “Christian slavery.”
Eliza Fain of Tennessee, whose husband and three sons enlisted in the Confederate army, wrote in her diary that the war was between those who were faithful to God and those who had abandoned God. As her own slaves fled for the north, she lamented the loss of the “sacred relationship” between master and slave. When the war ended, she could not understand how God would permit the end of slavery when the bible so clearly justified it.
In his personal letter to Philemon, a leader of a Christian community in Colossae, Paul reported that Philemon’s slave Onesimus had come to him while he and Timothy were being held in a prison either in Caesarea or Rome. Because Paul sent Onesimus back to his master, Philemon was often cited along with other texts as biblical and divine approval of slavery.
There is no doubt that slavery was an integral part of the fabric of Paul’s time. It is estimated that as many as one third of the population of the Empire were slaves. And while Paul did not explicitly call for abolition in his letter, he does encourage Philemon no longer see Onesimus as a slave but as “a beloved brother.” There was something about becoming a follower of Jesus that removed the social, cultural, economic and religious boundaries that so easily divided the world into us and them. God’s people cannot possibly become the Body of Christ if one part has ownership of another.
No, Eliza Fain, Paul did not explicitly condemn slavery, nor did he demand that Philemon free Onesimus. Instead, he asked Philemon to take up his cross and follow alongside his beloved brother.
The late James H. Come was Professor of Systematic Theology at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. Here is a quote from his book, “God of the Oppressed.”
“The scandal is that the gospel means liberation, that this liberation comes to the poor, and that it gives them the strength and the courage to break the conditions of servitude.”
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Two startling revelations made it into the news this week: Kim Kardashian-West revealed that when she was younger she became addicted to fame and money and Miley Cyrus concluded that after seven years of marriage, she needed some “me time.”
While the cult of celebrity seems amplified by social media and internet click-bait, it is nothing new. Alexander the Great named over 70 cities after himself. Roman Emperor Octavian re-named himself Augustus and sculptors drew his favor by placing his image on statues of gods. His celebrity happened by design: Augustus demanded that he be worshiped as a god born of a virgin mother and destined to live forever.
Proverbs warns against seeking that kind of status, not only as a way of avoiding the inevitable embarrassment that happens when the mighty fall, but also as a way of building community through egalitarian relationships. So while it seems like a simple bit of conventional wisdom, our first lesson this week, placed in it’s fuller context is anything but conventional. The conventional wisdom of the time was to align oneself closely with those with power, wealth, position or prestige.
I am particularly drawn to the study of the 16th century. Yes there was the upheaval created by Martin Luther and the reformers, but I am really fascinated by the Tudor dynasty, especially the reign of Henry VIII. Employing the same conventional wisdom Proverbs warns against, Hampton Court was filled with those attempting to gain entry into the king’s inner circle. Those that got his royal approval thought themselves on top of the world – at least until Henry changed his mind. Many of them found their way to the Tower, some found their heads on public display on the bridge.
Our passage from Proverbs, echoed in the instruction of Jesus in the gospel this week, is not about being exalted and getting the seat next to the celebrity. It is the unconventional wisdom of taking the lower seat, assuming the humble role, not playing the competitive game of climbing over others to get to the top. And just to put some icing on Jesus’ unconventional cake, he tells all those people competing to look important that when they host a banquet, they should invite the poor instead of – to use today’s language – the influencers.
Here is a bit of unconventional wisdom from 12th century Sephardic Jewish philosopher Maimonides:
“When a person eats and drinks in celebration of a holiday, he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with God’s command, but rather the rejoicing of his own belly.”
Pastor Steve will meet with confirmands and their families at 11:45 a.m. on Sunday, September 8. He will discuss this year’s curriculum as well as providing a sign-up for lunches, etc. Contact the church office ay 480-759-1515 with your questions.